Reforming the Deacons (21): “The Divorce Issue”

A safe course here would be to spend all our energies pursuing the multi-faceted question “Can a divorced person be a deacon?” and at the end, choose the safest and most reasonable exit without coming down on a firm position.  But where’s the fun in that?

“Let deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well” (I Timothy 3:11).

There it is. One simple sentence that has divided and perplexed and frustrated the Lord’s faithful people for eons.

Let’s state our position up front so there can be no doubt. As a general rule, divorce disqualifies a man from service as either a pastor or deacon. However, there are exceptions.

And by “exceptions,” I most definitely do not mean we must convene an investigating committee to search out the reasons for the man’s divorce and establish a) that he was sinned against or b) that he was unsaved at the time and has since come to the Lord. This kind of scrutiny over a person’s ancient history is outside the capability of any preacher on the planet.  All we have to do is look at the Roman Catholic Church’s annulment processes to see a) how complex this can get and b) how hypocritical it all appears to the outside world.  We will grant that their intent is good, but the product is a disaster.

The exception–that is, the divorced men who can be considered as deacons–applies when the divorce occurred decades ago and the man has lived an exemplary and godly life since.

That’s where I am at the moment. Good people will agree and disagree, and I’m fine by that. We each have to come to our own conclusion as to the Lord’s will.

This is an emotional, volatile subject.

Yesterday, I posted this question on Facebook: “Can a divorced person be a deacon?” An hour later, we had over 40 responses. This morning, the number is approaching 150. And, as one might expect, the answers were all over the map.

Few people are without an opinion on this subject.

Anyone who wishes to see just how explosive a subject this is should stand in a church business conference and make a motion that the church change its stance on divorce. Either way, it doesn’t matter. If your church ordains divorced people, move that it reconsider. If your church opposes ordaining the divorced, move that it consider changing and begin ordaining them. Then, stand back and watch the fur fly.

One has to wonder why people feel more passionate about this subject than issues of greater weight such as abortion or integrity or morality, or world missions or the displaced people of Sudan or the starving children of Central Africa.

For our purposes here, suffice it to say, “They do.” (Pastors, be forewarned!)

What about the “husband of one wife” passage?

The Greek text of I Timothy 3:12 is not a lot of help. It reads “one woman man” or can be interpreted “one wife husband.”

Is this a prohibition against polygamy? For a long time, I thought so. Then, reading everything I could find on the subject, I kept running into scholars who said, “Polygamy was never a problem in the early church.” They ruled that out and I did too, although reluctantly.

Is the problem divorce? Evidently so.  As long as there have been humans and humans have been sinners, divorce has been with us. Our Lord said the Old Testament provision for it  (Deuteronomy 24:1-4) was a concession to the hardness of people’s hearts (Matthew 19:8).

The prophet said God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16). True, but we ask, who doesn’t? I don’t know anyone who loves divorce. Most divorced people hate it. So, to allow a divorced person to teach a Bible class or serve as a deacon (or even a pastor!) is not saying we love or approve of divorce or that we take it lightly.

The “husband of one wife” phrase requires interpretation, no matter what position we take.

Why? Because if taken literally as it stands, it would bar single men and widowers from serving as deacons. I don’t know anyone who wants to do that. The phrase requires some context and “giving the sense” of its meaning (a reference to Nehemiah 8:8).

Does “common sense” bring anything worthwhile to the subject?

While some Christians reject divorced individuals as deacons because of this text, they have no trouble accepting people with all manners of sordid pasts so long as they have repented and been forgiven and proven themselves faithful.

A friend says a divorced man in his church told him, “I should have just shot my first wife. Then, I could have found a good lawyer and served maybe 5 years for manslaughter. After returning home, I would have walked the aisle of my church and rededicated my life to the Lord, and bingo–in time, I’m a deacon. All I did was to divorce her. Consequently, I’m permanently barred.”

Where is the logic in that?

A pastor’s wife sent me this note.

I’d like to play the devil’s advocate for a moment.

If a man killed his wife and served his time, then got his life right with Christ, could he be elected a deacon?

If a man was addicted to pornography, and induced his wife to role-play with him, then, he repented and he and his wife came to the Lord, can he be a deacon?

If a man had an affair with another woman, then repented and gave evidence he was genuinely changed, could he be a deacon?

Or, say he lived as a homosexual and then God changed him. Can he be a deacon?

But, a man who was married and then divorced, who received counsel and asked for forgiveness for anything he’d done wrong, he cannot ever become a deacon?

What’s wrong with this picture?

What does Christian maturity and faithfulness say?

A pastor friend sent me a note. He said, “I used to have a man in my church who was mature and godly. He came to me privately on one occasion and said, ‘Pastor, if I should ever be nominated for deacon, quietly remove my name.’ He had been divorced early in life and was remarried. He said, ‘I’d rather be in submission to the Word than to hold any position in the church.'”

I said to my friend, “That fellow has just qualified as a deacon in any church I pastor!” Such a godly, submissive attitude commends him as few other things could.

By the same token, the person who grows angry over being unfairly treated on this issue is probably demonstrating he is not qualified in other areas (spiritual maturity being the big one).

When other pastors and I have sat around the table working on this subject, eventually someone will say, “Even though it does seem we discriminate against the divorced person more than others, the point is to uphold the sacredness of marriage. I think the person ought to ‘take it on the chin’ in the interest of the Kingdom.”

After all, someone will add, there is nothing in any church’s bylaws to prohibit a member from serving God’s people in Jesus’ name. And that’s all deacons are, is servants. And you don’t have to be ordained to serve.

True enough.

One of my friends said, “When in doubt, I try to err on the side of conservatism.” Another responded, “When I’m in doubt, I want to err on the side of grace.”

Grace. That’s what we are about, isn’t it?

What should your church do?

I’ll tell you what it should not do. It should not change its present policy hastily without a great deal of prayer and study and deliberation.

The tendency is for a church to do whatever its pastor says, particularly if he is strong-willed and takes no prisoners when presenting his position on controversial issues. This is not a good approach, as it leaves the church vulnerable to the next strong-armed leader who shows up with a contrary agenda.

The church should not throw out all prohibitions against divorced men (or women) serving as deacons simply because such a position is politically unpopular and attracts the criticism of the world. Fear is no reason to do anything in the Lord’s church.

The pastor who feels his church has the wrong position on this issue–regardless of which side he takes–will want to proceed with caution. This is not worth dividing a congregation over. As my pastor says, “I am not willing to die on that hill.”

The first step should be lots and lots of prayer, seeking the Lord’s will and leadership in how to proceed as well as asking for more light on the issue itself. (One Facebooker said rather harshly that we should quit asking one another what we think and everyone get off the computer and on our knees. I don’t doubt the Lord could deliver His will to us on this and any other matter by dropping it out of the sky fully developed and hand-written, but that’s not been my experience. The Lord wants us to prayerfully discuss such issues, and to do so in the spirit of love.)

After a season of prayer, as the Lord leads, the pastor may want to teach I Timothy, verse by verse. Or, he may choose to present a series of sermons or studies on church leadership, any of which would get him to Acts 6 and I Timothy 3.

Prayer, teaching, and then discussion. Lots of open-hearted talk in the spirit of love.

Finally, wait on the Lord. And do nothing until He has made His will clear to the great host of the church’s most faithful.

Praying, teaching, talking, and waiting. Following these four steps could resolve most of the church’s mistakes, heal its ills, and answer its questions.

The church has long been plagued and hampered by leaders who stood up in the flesh, preaching and promoting positions rooted in their own convictions and based on their dubious interpretations of scripture, insisting on getting their way, and dismissing all dissenters. We’ve had quite enough of that, and don’t need any more.

Let us go forth in love and faithfulness, encouraging one another, and shying away from anyone or anything which would divide the Lord’s body over minor matters.



22 thoughts on “Reforming the Deacons (21): “The Divorce Issue”

  1. There are two overwhelming considerations that lead me to believe that divorced men can serve. One is that with Paul’s extensive education he obviously knew the word for “divorce” and if he had wanted to say “Divorced men cannot serve as deacons or pastors” he would have said that with his characteristic bluntness. In addition, the words he used – as you rightly interpreted “one wife husband” when taken with the tense of the verb used in the sentence, seem to demand that this be seen as a call for a man to be faithful in his current relationship and to have shown a record of faithfulness. For there to be some arbitrary exclusion because of divorce goes against everything we know about the grace and mercy of a forgiving and restorative God. At the end of the day it is really immaterial what any body thinks – all that matters is what scripture says. And no matter how you spin it, though Paul certainly could have, he simply never says that divorced men cannot serve.

  2. Joe I agree with you and there is such discussion on this it could easily split a church. I would like to read a section of our By-Laws word for word and take this one step further.
    “A Deacon must be right in his family relationships. Neither the Deacon nor his wife shall have a living spouse by a previous marriage.”
    So my churches stance is that neither the Deacon NOR his wife shall have been divorced… My thought… We are adding to the exclusion of good men who can serve Biblically by instituting qualifications the scriptures don’t!
    We are having Deacon nominations in about 2 months, pray as I teach through this difficult issue.

  3. Dr. Joe, I have an observation from perhaps a more practical standpoint than theological but for what it’s worth:

    My husband and I are both divorced and remarried. Last I checked, the failure rate for second marriages was quite a bit higher than first marriages. Personal experience tells us (my sweetheart and I) that blending a family, step parenting, and building a marriage in spite of prior baggage is indeed a formidable task. Now, I definitely see the point made by many that men who’ve committed much more serious offenses than divorce can be deacons and that’s not fair. However, to have a church approach my adorable, wonderful husband and ask him to be a deacon? Though I know the kindness of his heart and the compassion with which he lives make him equipped as anyone… no thank you! We need him too much! Our marriage needs us both, our family needs us both. Second marriages are intense in the effort and time needed, practically eclipsing the ability to serve in a deacon capacity, if you ask me.

    My own father, the husband (50 years now) of one wife and as godly a man as I’ve ever known, has repeatedly refused deacon nominations because he felt our family needed his attention more. He sang in the choir, even preached on occasion in the pastor’s absence, but his first priority was his wife and three children. He worked hard, long hours and many nights he’d show up at a football game to watch my brother play, still wearing his work uniform. He’d shower quickly and hurry to see me or my sister at a piano recital. He looked forward to his homecoming every night and so did we. I often wonder if more “qualified” men in the marital sense should take direction from a man like my dad and be sure they’re fulfilling their responsibilities at home first. And for a re-married guy the challenges are even more intense. There are enough ministry needs in our own home to keep my dear husband busy for years to come, helping children who’ve been through divorce, a wife with her own painful issues, and a marriage that requires special attention to stay healthy and happy.

    So… let the ex-cons and porn addicts be deacons. 😉 We second-marriage families need our husbands and daddies!!

  4. I still feel the matter of forgiveness/cleansing should be applied here. IF divorce is confessed as sin (missing God’s standard), and IF there is evidence of genuine repentance, then forgiveness and grace cleanse us from ALL sin. Is grace absolute? YES! Is forgiveness complete? YES! THEN God has applied the “divine clorox”. The sin has been confessed, forgiven, and the sinner CLEANSED. What then prevents a cleansed sinner from serving the One who cleansed him of his sin? Unfortunately, it appears to be the legalists! Show me a broken and re-made person who has been to the bottom and known genuine grace, and I will show you an appreciative, dedicated servant more than willing to go the second mile to show his gratitude by serving the Lord.

  5. Hey Joe, great word as always. It is indeed an issue of great debate. I agree with not splitting a church over this. I’ve served as pastor in a church that disqualified divorced men and now one that allows it. If the church policy is going to change, it will be the congregation that initiates it, not me. When asked, I give my personal view, but have never pushed it. I believe one can serve, but first must be tested, as in his faithfulness in his current marriage. It’s amazing how half a verse in the bible has caused such division in polity. It is most certainly something we all should be able to agree to disagree on so that we can focus on things of the kingdom. If I’m wrong in my view, Jesus will let me know on the Bema seat of judgment. My most sincere prayer is that God will raise up Godly men who meet the other requirements, especially those of Acts 6. That would mean we’d have far more healthy churches

  6. Joe – Many of your thoughts line up with another dear Mentor from my life… Dr. Tew. Upon arriving at FBC Hoover and my asking about this very question, since they had Divorced Deacons, his comment was two fold. First it was to sort out my beliefs by tradition and conviction, throwing out the first and living by the latter. Second he told me that the job of a Pastor was not to come into a Church and rip apart all of its existing structure, but rather to prayerfully lead change if needed. His wisdom still speaks to me today. All that said ( you know I had more ), the only problem I have with people who take such permanant stances against divorced deacons is when it comes to their semantics rather than their practice. Many of the same men they would stand and oppose by “title” they gladly give the Biblical duties of the Deacon to. They will let these same men visit, caretake, wait tables, lead, but refuse the title. I just feel that it makes us as Pastors and Churches hypocritical to say with our mouths one things while living out otherwise. Just a thought…

  7. This has been a thorn in the side of many people for many years.
    We all should remember that the Apostle Paul’s epistals (14 total )were written to different churches located in different countries and locations,which many had been living under different cultures,gods and idols.The letter to Timothy is in an area where they had plural marriages,and still do today.If we are to rightly divide the Word of Truth,we must know who and why the word was addressed to.
    Did not Paul say forbade a woman to teach? Ask yourself where and why.
    Isn’t it a shame for a woman to pray with her head uncovered? (Where and why).
    Do we,being mortals,have the right or authority to pass judgement on those who
    God has forgiven thier sins? Does not the scripture say “now you are clean” through the Word? (what is the Word)?
    Be very careful how you treat those who God has cleansed!!
    You cannot call one an adulterer and a Christian at the same time.
    God Bless you all..

  8. There are indeed Biblical standards of behavior and deportment for Christians, and there is indeed a limited amount of grace by many church members shown to those impacted by the un-Biblical behavior of another. The denomination in which I was raised, and in which we raised our children, did not allow women to teach a mixed adult class; women could teach children, or other women. [Only the wife of the pastor emeritus was allowed to teach a Sunday School Class with both men and women — probably because she authored a large percentage of the denominational literature!!]. Thus, I was ‘allowed’ to finish the 12 week series of classes (mixed adults) alone that I had been co-facilitating with my husband when he decided he wanted a divorce to marry his current mistress. When that session was completed, I was “encouraged” to step down, to have more time to straighten out my life. Meanwhile, my still-married-to-me husband was actively and openly involved in the ministry and choir of another church – WITH his mistress. Lots of hurt to my two young adult/ teenage sons…and of course there was NO pastoral support for addressing this behavior, or helping us through the crisis. Personally, I do not approve of the positions of either church: not the one condemning the abandoned spouse, nor the one condoning blatant adultery.
    Needless to say, I eventually chose to find another place to worship quietly — away from most people who knew me previously. And, I will not choose to return to that denomination for multiple reasons.
    – Maryjean

  9. When we look at 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 we find both passages ambiguous as to whether Paul meant divorce. Paul knew the word divorce and we must ask ourselves, “Why didn’t he use the word divorce?” When we look at these two passages we find a list of qualifications that tells the church to judge the character of an individual being considered for deacon or even pastor. If we examine all qualifications with the same scrutiny as we apply the divorce issue, no one could serve in these positions. If one struggled with alcoholism in the distant past, couldn’t ever serve. If one has in his past, a season of anger could not ever serve. If one has ever lived an uncontrolled life, could never serve. Divorce, is treated much differently than these other qualifications when we consider someone to serve.
    The Bible is very clear as to the extent of God’s forgiveness. Shouldn’t Christians exercise the same amount of grace when considering those who have experienced divorce? We all have a past that that needs forgiveness. Divorce is an event in one’s life history, an event that is not to be marginalized and yet one that should not define that person for life.
    Paul was clearly instructing the church to select men who have their lives in order, and couldn’t that include one who has been through divorce? Those pastors who don’t want to even approach the subject of divorced people becoming a deacon or a divorced person becoming a pastor are being neglectful in their own teaching and leadership. No pastor should demand that their current policy be changed in one single moment; however, a gentle, patient leading style could go a long way.

  10. I am very late coming to this post! But working through this difficult issue…again.

    Some say Paul would not have been referring to polygamy, as it was rare among the Greeks of the day. True. But it was commonplace among the Jews. Having concubines was common among the Romans (even though they didn’t have multiple wives). The earliest converts in many (most?) of Paul’s churches, since he always started in the synagogues, were Jews or Jewish proselytes. Many of them would have had 2 or more wives. And many of the Greek men would have had concubines.

    So the issue is very simple. Paul is looking for mature Christian men, not recent converts, who were now known as chaste, pure, faithful men, who kept to and only to their one wife. I don’t think divorce was the issue AT ALL. What people had done in their pagan or Jewish past, but had been washed away by Christ’s blood, was of little concern. For if any man be in Christ he is a new creature. The old things have passed away, behold all things have become new.

    The biggest pause for this interpretation of 1 Tim 3:2/12 is the testimony of the church fathers. For the first 300-400 years there is huge evidence that most leaders and bishops would not ordain men who had a divorce in their past…or men who remarried after their wives had died. This is hard to get around. But our standard or rule of faith is the clear teaching of the Bible and not the opinions of church leaders in any age.

  11. Dr Joe,

    I too have done extensive research on this issue as a divorced man who’s divorce meets the Matthew exception clause. (that’s a whole different debate among folks way smarter than I am) I found that indeed your statement that the NT church had no issues of polygamy but the area where Timothy was preaching (Palestine/Asia Minor) it was still very well accepted. If Paul meant to exclude divorced men and not polygamist, why did he not mention it in Titus where polygamy was not an issue? Titus was in the Roman/Greek area where there was no polygamy and Timothy was in the Palestinian/Asian area where polygamy was still accepted. Paul was a well educated man and had the vocabulary to specify divorce so why would he not have specifically excluded them if this was his meaning? That’s my research and why I still am not convinced he didn’t mean polygamist.

  12. This doesn’t directly answer or address your question, but does bring up one I’m dealing with that is kind of a related issue.. maybe you can help me..

    I attend a large, VERY conservative SBC church, with several divorced and remarried staff members (one the Associate Pastor). The husband of one of those divorce staff members (also previously divorced) is a deacon. This church is about as theologically conservative as you can imagine, yet divorce is treated as no big deal. I’ve never been married, yet when I’ve volunteered to teach College Students, I’ve been refused on the grounds that it would be inappropriate for a single male to teach a mixed group of College students. I wasn’t even applying to be a Director (a married couple is in place to do that), just to teach.

    I came through Seminary in the 1980s, when divorce was still a career-ender for people in the ministry; now it seems that the pendulum has swung in the other direction, so that the never-marrieds are discriminated against. My own Sunday School teacher was teaching a married class until his divorce; now, he teaches in the Singles Department.

    When did divorce become a qualification for a ministry position?

    • Tom, that is truly bizarre, and I have no explanation for it other than the eternal speck/beam principle: “My sin is okay but your weaknesses are glaring.” A young lady friend of ours was turned down from teaching children in an Atlanta church because she wasn’t married. Like that had anything to do with it. I’m no longer surprised by anything a church does. The wonder is that the Lord still puts up with us.

  13. You think.Catholic policies are a mess. LOL, I see a lot of men deciding how to interpret scripture to suit their own proclivities. Catholics have had one biblical answer for 2000 years.

  14. This is a very tough issue from the church member stand-point. I was married and divorced when I in my early twenties (I am now 56 and have been married to one wife happily for 27 years). My first wife clearly set me up – because within 3 mos of being married I was locked out of our house (which I paid for), my bank accounts, and found out that she had been cheating on me all along (before and after the marriage) with every tom dick and “jane” she ran into in a bar (yeah, she even swang that way and I didn’t know). We’ll I am SURE that I have been called to be a Deacon at my church – I’ve been medically retired for a few years now and spend 10+ hours daily doing everything from accounting, tech, cleaning, pretty exactly what a Deacon is designed to do – support the flock as a slave (doulos). My Pastor has taught me so much and is very educated, but he has a blind spot to this gray area where there is clearly question. We do not have it spelled out in the church charter, so it is really up to him as our spiritual leader.

    It is tough to be faithful to a spiritual leader who God has given certain responsibilities too, and yet know I have been called.

  15. Brother, I think you are missing the point here, The Lord never said no to the position of a divorced man not teaching and 1 Corinthians 7:27 Are thou bound to a wife? seek not to be loosed, Art thou loosed from a wife? seek not a wife. 28 But and if thou marry, thou hast not sinned; and if the virgin marry, she hath no sinned. Nevertheless such shall have trouble in the flesh, but I spare you.

    The point is, if the Lord Jesus Christ did not want a person to preach in the church that is divorced, he would have written divorced not a husband of one wife. A church that teaches their interpretation is wrong, regardless what doctrine you follow. Its wrong because God made it clear. Clearly the point is one person said this is so and now it is law in most churches. And clearly, if Jesus said if thou marry after divorce, thou has not sinned, then clearly why would someone need to repent to the Church. The Bible is true and all men are liars right.

    The problem is that divorced men (Good men of God are being denied the opportunity that the Lord has provided for them through false teachings in churches) Think about that, God has called a man to preach but because of a clear error in thinking they are unable to. Who’s right, God’s Holy Word or man. I tend to take sides with the Bible.

    BTW I used to believe the same thing you talked about until I studied the issue inside and out.

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  17. One important point is being missed in the arguments I have read. My take on divorce is that it is a sin. My understanding of God’s Grace is that if prior to salvation one sins, gets divorced, becomes born again through repentance of sin, lives a Godly life and is then elected deacon, he is free to serve. This because once a person receives salvation and repents of his sin, the blood of the Lamb washes that person clean, God forgives and memory of it is erased from His mind forever… if the sin(s) were never committed.

    • And I say you are too quick to label something a sin. Divorce is not the plan of God, to be sure, but sometimes it’s the only thing. When the dad was found to be molesting the children, he went to prison and the mother divorced him with the full support of her pastor and church. To tell her she was sinning would have been heartless.

  18. Pingback: Thank God for Deacons, but what about . . .

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